Portland rail museum wins historic logging locomotive
The Oregon Rail Heritage Center got a present just before its 10th birthday — a historic logging steam locomotive.
The Oregon Historical Society gifted the center the Mount Emily Shay, a locomotive built in the 1920s that has been operating out of Prineville for the last 30 years. It will join the three larger existing historic steam passenger and freight locomotives housed in the working museum near OMSI in Southeast Portland.
The center won over two other railroad museums who had also applied for the locomotive. The decision was announced on Sept. 1, just weeks before the 10th year anniversary of the opening of the center, which will be celebrated with a free public event on Sept. 24.
"The Mount Emily Shay will allow the Oregon Rail Heritage Center to show the public the important role logging railroads played in the development of the timber industry in Oregon, Specialty locomotives like the Shay, which could operate on steep and rough track, were able to access timber not available by other means Shays were key to bringing logs to the mills and developing Oregon's timber economy," said Roy Hemmingway, president of Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, which owns and operates the center.
"The Oregon Historical Society sincerely appreciates the support of the City of Prineville in stewarding and operating the Mount Emily Shay for decades. We are thrilled that the Mount Emily Shay will have a new, permanent home at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where it will be on view and used for excursions, balancing preservation and access to this important piece of Oregon history," OHS Deputy Museum Director Nicole Yasuhara says of the transfer.
Prineville asked OHS to transfer the Mount Emily Shay because the city could no longer afford to operate it.
"The steam engine, in the last four or five years, has been mothballed and nobody really gets to see it. It's just been parked in a shed. It just doesn't do it justice just having it parked. It's a wonderful item, an historical artifact just not being utilized," Prineville Railway Operations Manager Matt Wiederholt.
The transfer also coincides with progress on another project, the installation of a historic "turntable" used to turn steam locomotives around outside their maintenance facilities. A large circular hole has been dug out and lined in front of the center. A massive steel beam "bridge" will be mounted on a pivot inside the hole to hold the locomotives while they are being rotated. Two electric motors will turn it.
The nonprofit working museum currently maintains three city of Portland-owned steam locomotives. They are the Southern Pacific 4449 (1941), the Spokane Portland and Seattle 700 (1938), and the Oregon Rail and Navigation 197 (1905).
The rail center at the east end of Tilikum Crossing is an ideal new home for the Mount Emily Shay. Located at the intersection of both public and private rail lines, it is a large facility with a dedicated crew of volunteers to maintain the existing locomotives.
ORHC public affairs director Renee Devereux said the Mount Emily Shay would become the centerpiece of a new exhibit on the history of forestry in Portland and Oregon. In fact, the center sits on the site of the former Poulsen Lumber Mill in inner Southeast Portland.
The Mount Emily Shay was designed by Ephraim Shay and manufactured at the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio in the 1920s. Shays are geared steam locomotives, specifically suited for mining and timber industries. While almost 3,000 Shays were manufactured, only around 115 still exist and even fewer are still operational.
The Mount Emily Shay was originally purchased by the Hofus Steel & Equipment Company of Seattle, Washington, then sold to the Independence Logging Company of Independence, Washington. It was eventually sold to, and named after, the Mount Emily Lumber Company, located in the city of La Grande.
The Mount Emily Shay was owned and operated by the company until it was retired in 1957 and donated to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It was transferred to the historical society in 1958.
The Mount Emily Shay was later on long term loan to the state of West Virginia beginning in the 1970s. The borrower restored the engine to working order, — twice after fire damage — and the locomotive was operated on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
When the Prineville railway took over operation of the Shay in the 1990s, it was used to pull the Crooked River Dinner Train and for a variety of special excursions for school classes. The steam engine got significant public exposure each Fourth of July, when hundreds of people lined up to take train rides with the locomotive pulling a passenger car.
But, one by one, its uses diminished. Amid a recession, city officials discontinued the Crooked River Dinner Train and in the years that followed, the railway offered fewer and fewer excursions. And finally, converging circumstances put an end to the Fourth of July train rides. The COVID-19 pandemic initially prompted cancelation of the train rides and business growth left the railway without a viable place to park and board the train.
Wiederholt stressed that the decision has caused no animosity between the railway and the historical society — they share a similar goal of getting the Shay the exposure they feel it deserves.
The pending transfer was first reported by the Central Oregonian, a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group. Their longer story on the Mount Emily Shay can be found here. Reporter Jason Chaney contributed to this story.
More information on the Oregon Rail Heritage Center can be found at orhf.org.
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